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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1997, pgs. 9, 48-51

The Arabian Gulf in 1997. . .

With Ruling Family’s Dispute Settled, Qatar’s New Emir Charts Bold Course

by Richard H. Curtiss

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, met Dec. 9 in Rome with his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, for the first time since the son took over the rulership from his father in June 1995. The personal meeting marked the formal end of the dispute which had tied up the finances of the Emirate for 18 months. Under an agreement reached between their representatives, the father’s foreign bank accounts have been unfrozen and some of the contents will be transferred to the government of Qatar and the control of his son. The amount of money in those accounts, accumulated from the proceeds of Qatar’s oil sales over the past 25 years, was between $2.1 and $2.3 billion, considerably less than the $6 to 8 billion rumored in the Middle Eastern press after Sheikh Hamad assumed the rulership during his father’s absence abroad in June 1995.

In fact it turned out that over the years oil revenues had been split as they were collected, with roughly 50 percent being used to pay for petroleum production and Qatari government investments in gas production, liquefaction and transportation facilities. The remainder was used for the government budget, prestige projects such as the landmark Doha Sheraton hotel, which cost close to a billion dollars, and the expenses of the ruling family and the emir himself.

Even before settlement of the dispute, which had pitted Sheikh Khalifa and two of his sons against Sheikh Hamad and two of Sheikh Khalifa’s other sons, women of the family had traveled unhindered between the two camps. What the father, Sheikh Khalifa, will do next is not clear and may in fact still be under negotiation.

Rumors have it that his principal palace in Qatar is being refurbished in preparation for a ceremonial return accompanied by a senior Gulf ruler such as Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan, president of the United Arab Emirates, or King Fahd or Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, perhaps in conjunction with a special Qatari event or occasion. Prior to the meeting, work also had been started on a palace made available as a permanent residence for Sheikh Khalifa by Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan, emir of Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Khalifa also has a summer residence in Switzerland.

As part of the settlement, the new Emir, Sandhurst-educated Sheikh Hamad, announced thathis 19-year-old Sandhurst-educated son, Sheikh Jassem bin Hamad Al Thani, would be his heir apparent, settling one of the issues in the 1995 split between father and son. With the succession issue agreed, the money under state treasury controls, and Qatar ready to launch in December the first shipment of liquefied natural gas from the country’s vast North Field, the largest single deposit of natural gas in the world, Qatar’s new emir is free to pursue his own dreams. And, although Qatar has the smallest population of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, its new emir’s dreams may be among the biggest.

Although Qatar’s Sunni Muslims are of the same strict Muwahidun (meaning “unitarian” but often called “Wahabi” after its promulgatory) creed as their conservative Saudi Arabian neighbors, Sheikh Hamad’s vision seems pointed at a more liberal poitical system, starting with an elected consultative council. Of the other GCC states, only Kuwait presently has an elected parliament while all of the others have appointed consultative councils to advise the ruler and carry out investigations of government services and interrogations of cabinet members.

Now Sheikh Hamad has announced that in addition to an elected consultative council, Qatar will have elected municipal officers. He also has gone a step further than other GCC states by announcing an end to media censorship . He has even abolished Qatar’s Information Ministry, which not only was responsible for censorship but also ran the country’s radio and television, set quality standards for local newspapers, and assisted foreign journalists and scholars seeking information about Qatar.

There is no other Arab country, and probably no country in the world, without such a ministry or its equivalent, with the exception of the United States, which scatters many of the functions of such a ministry among various federal departments, agencies and commissions.

Sheikh Hamad is further emphasizing women’s education in a country where both female and male attendance in primary and secondary school is mandatory and where women already outnumber men in the national university. He also is calling for removal of remaining barriers to women exercising their full potential in cultural, economic and professional life.

One of his three wives, Sheikha Moza Al Misnad, recently led a delegation of specialists in the educational and medical fields served by Sheikh Hamad’s personal charitable and educational foundation in Qatar to visit leading American institutions in their fields. In doing so, she apparently became the first wife of a Gulf ruler to lead a delegation abroad in the absence of her husband. (See box accompanying this article.)

Many young Qataris seem delighted with these developments. Remarked a female professor at Qatar University who is related to Sheikha Moza, “Our people have waited a long time for these changes. They are ready for them.”

Such innovations also are bound to excite favorable comment in the Western press when they become known. Even if they draw a mixed reaction in more conservative Middle Eastern circles, however, there is little likelihood that the 44-year-old ruler and his supporters will be deterred. They know where they want to go, and they have started the journey.

In fact, listening to conflicting accounts of what is happening in Qatar is like viewing a trompe d’loeil, a painting or a mosaic floor designed to fool the eye. Looked at one way, it presents a smooth and inviting path. Looked at another way it seems an impassable surface.

While the country’s leader and his very small circle of close advisers dream grandiose dreams, telephones ring unanswered in the royal diwan, Qatar’s seat of government. Complains one leading Qatari businessman, “It used to be that when you had a problem, you could walk into the Diwan and find someone to solve it. Now security turns you away at the gate and you have no way of knowing whether there is anyone inside at all.” Says a more charitable Western diplomat, “I think they are trying to do so much so fast that their protocol people have been stretched beyond the breaking point.”

Qatari daily newspapers seem to be reporting something that looks more like a political campaign than a normally functioning government. On one day in November the media announced that a new constitution will be promulgated. The next day the media described new decisions of Qatar’s consultative council. The third day it was announced that the November 1997 Middle East economic summit, which this year attracted 4,000 delegates to Egypt, not to mention vastly augmented foreign embassy support staffs, will be held in Doha, which has perhaps 2,000 hotel rooms. To house the guests in Qatar, cruise ships will be tied up in the port of Doha.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s existing hotel rooms are occupied by foreign businessmen and consultants who arrive thinking they have appointments with government officials, only to find the officials no longer are in office or are on missions of their own in other countries.

More unsettling are the widespread rumors of favoritism within the emir’s tiny circle of advisers who, many Qataris charge, deliberately insulate the ruler from any competitors for power or business. Even allowing for exaggeration such as that in early reports of the previous emir’s assets, the popular perception that gas and oil-rich Qatar’s future prosperity will focus on diwan intimates is widespread, and presents a very different vision of the future from that being publicly, and sincerely, propounded by Qatar’s dynamic new ruler and his admirers.

Qatar’s half-million residentsof whom no more than 100,000 have Qatari nationality, while the rest are expatriate workers and their familiesalso seem to have two totally different visions of recent history. All would agree that the initial oil wealth produced profound positive changes in the country. It enabled the children of Qatar’s ruling elite and of its merchant class to go abroad for good educations. It also enabled Qataris to hire Palestinians, Egyptians, Indians and Pakistanis to set up a system of universal elementary and secondary education, along with vocational training and a university designed to meet the country’s professional and technical needs.

Most residents of Qatar would agree also that for a time tiny Qatar seemed the best managed emirate in the Gulf. In the past decade, however, it had fallen perceptibly behind not only Kuwait, which had a one-generation headstart, but also economic late starters like Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The emir’s wife, Sheikha Moza, therefore spoke for many Qataris when she explained to the Americans she met in November, “We have so much to do, and so little time to do it.”

The question is not what is to be done, but only whether Qatar is using wisely the time and resources required to do it.